In Support of Total Immersion

I grew up during the old-school era of second-language learning. We filled in the blanks, conjugated verbs, and memorized vocabulary lists. Entry level classes, and sometimes even intermediate and advanced classes, were taught in English. Speaking in the second language was a part of those classes, but not a huge part, and when we did speak, it was awkwardly and amidst classmates making fun of each other’s accents.

Today, language learning is (thankfully) progressing toward total immersion. In my college classes, and in the high school and junior high classes that I’ve observed, instructors use the target language to teach. Students are expected to participate by speaking, and by writing and reading in the foreign language. Oh, how far we’ve come! It seems so obvious that to learn a language, the best method is to be immersed in that language. After all, that’s how we learn our first language, right? Hearing it, using it, being surrounded by it, even bombarded with it (think of the way parents talk and talk to their babies, while the babies stare in rapt attention, taking it all in). So I was caught off guard when a parent in one of my preschool classes expressed concern that the class was being done all in French, without providing translations for the kids.

It’s uncomfortable to be immersed in a language you don’t understand. I get it. When I was in my 20s, I signed up for a conversational French class along with a friend. Neither of us had any prior exposure to French (other than “Lady Marmalade” lyrics; the Moulin Rouge version was very popular at the time). In the second class, our teacher started asking us questions. In French. I remember our reaction well: I looked at my friend and said, “What the hell?” and she muttered, “This is ridiculous.”

The thing is, we were able to find in our notes what our teacher was saying, and we were able to answer her questions by the time she came around the circle to us. As adults, we use resources (textbooks, notes, dictionaries) to follow along. A good teacher will be expressive and enunciate clearly, helping students to comprehend. For children, when they are provided with plenty of visual aids, gestures, manipulatives, and expressive use of the language, they will understand.

I’ve since become a big believer in total immersion. I do believe that for beginners, an occasional break into English to explain grammar rules or a difficult definition/concept can help. After all, as adult learners, we assimilate, compare, and use our first language to build on. But children don’t need this. They learn differently. They aren’t taking notes or trying to understand why we use le passé composé vs l’imparfait. They are making natural language associations in the same way they do with their first language.

The best way to learn a language is in an interactive exchange – regardless of the age of the learner. Lectures, vocab lists, conjugating verbs, all of these things have their place, but to learn a language, one must actively use it. By immersing in it.

A monolingual friend asked me if, when I write papers in French, I write them first in English then translate them. I know classmates who do this, but I consider this too difficult. Translation is no easy feat, and for me, it’s so much easier to write in French from the get go, to immerse my brain, my train of thought, my writing in the language that the paper must be written in. Learning by constant internal translation is a hindrance to language learning. Trying to formulate every thought in one language then translating it to another is far too much work. For so many things, no direct translation exists. There are turns of phrases, ways of expressing things, that are unique to each language. It’s not just a bunch of memorized vocabulary words: using a second language often involves a different way of thinking and approaching a problem, an explanation, a paper.

It’s uncomfortable at first, no doubt. But when you first realize that you are thinking in that second language as you use it, rather than translating from your native tongue, you’ve made a huge leap forward toward bi/multilingualism. And immersion is an essential component of this process.

19 thoughts on “In Support of Total Immersion

  1. As a student of the ‘old school’ & newer methods of language-learning, and as a former French teacher, I agree that immersion is key to faster language learning with teaching methods age related to meet students’ needs. Great article!

  2. I’m with you 100% here! When I taught an after school English workshop in a French Primary school with Cambridge Kids, some parents were worried as my French is bad or non existent the kids wouldn’t learn. My kids learnt fast! It was a slight disadvantage to me not speaking French, when it came to discipline, but they pick up on everything! Parents which spoke English, loved that I didn’t speak much French and the kids were in the deep end! Teaching in Spain, I’ve never had a problem with parents not concerned the classes were 90% English. Again my kids learnt fast! As did I picking up the languages from kids!

    • How fun – Teaching English to foreign students is one of my “cool alternative life” jobs! The way we teach languages has changed so much in recent decades that people brought up in the older school methods can be resistant to immersion. But it’s proven to be so much more effective, for sure.

      • I was brought up old school teaching and I did use it to a degree with my kids as that’s how I as taught. But since I’ve lived in Spain and France, I’ve learnt the only way if you want to learn a language and it’s culture, is total immersion. So I used a mix of both with the older kids. They learnt what they had to learn to pass exams at school (still old school in both countries) and at the same time I taught them the everyday language (and the history, culture behind it) they needed if they travelled to the UK or any other English speaking country. I also used with private clients the internet a lot as that’s what the kids are into. Total immersion without them knowing!

        • It’s true that there is value in some of the “old school” methods, and a combination of approaches can work well. I think you hit on one of the best methods there is: learning without realizing you are working at it! Thanks for reading and bon courage!

  3. I’ve only now discovered your blog, which is very enjoyable. When I joined the Peace Corps long ago, I was fortunate to be in the first in-country language training program, so you can tell it was a really long time ago. I arrived in Chile with absolutely no Spanish under my belt–except “adios, amigo,” and “Rio Grande” that I heard on “The Lone Ranger.” I grew up in the northeast and studied Latin, French, and German in high school. On day three, we were instructed to speak only Spanish among ourselves as well as to anyone else and we entered a classroom (in small groups) where someone came through the door and started with “Buenos dias. Yo me llamo Bernadette.” That’s all we got. In two weeks, I was able to communicate in a way that afforded me clean towels, clean sheets, the food I wanted, the bus I wanted, and many other of life’s necessities. Total immersion is just that. Total. And nothing is as good. My husband and I travel to France as much as possible. And while at home, I practice with another francophile/francophone and watch French t.v. But it’s not the same as my Peace Corps days. I live in California now, too. The only downfall is that flights to France are gobs longer than they would have been from my native Boston. I look forward to keeping up with your blog now that I’ve found it.

    • Glad you found me!

      Yes, immersion, being forced to communicate out of necessity, avoiding your native tongue, all these things help the climb up that learning curve tremendously. And yes, flights to France from the west coast are long! I used to be so jealous of east coasters; a long weekend in Europe is a real possibility from there! From Colorado, we can take Iceland Air, which saves us about 4 hours in transit time. I’m not sure what their routes are out of Cali, but it might be worth checking out! The routes could be more direct, and because it’s a smaller airport, the layover times are cut down significantly.

  4. Bravo! As a very mature ( one might say elderly…at his /her own risk) person learning french, I agree that immersion in the target language is essential, and very rewarding. It eventually clicks into place. Do not be afraid of making mistakes, even as babies we learn to speak our mother tongue by speaking, and refining that language with practice. Bon courage!

    • Too true – the fear of making mistakes paralyzes many of us. It’s one of the great things about learning as a child: the self consciousness typically hasn’t set in, so they blurt out whatever they want and experiment with the language freely. Bon courage à vous aussi !

  5. Nothing to add here. I learned German through a more “old-school” approach, and while I generally got pretty good grades, I really wish I had been able to do the total immersion thing. I did notice that the last time I was in Germany, after a few days I found myself understanding a fair amount and having an easier time communicating. Though I only actually had to speak German a couple of times, since most people quickly realized I was American and spoke English to me instead. 😛

  6. Yes – the immersion experience can make such a huge difference! I learned Spanish in school the “old” way, and never retained much of anything. It wasn’t until I worked in a Spanish-speaking community and was forced to use it that I could actually speak (very broken Spanish)! I have the funniest conversations in France, where I’m trying to speak French, and the French speaker speaks English in return, and we end up both stubbornly trying to speak the other’s language… it’s hard not to burst out laughing in these moments! But I remain determined to immerse myself 🙂

    Thanks for reading!

  7. I enjoy your writing style a great deal (that was my major at NYU…journalism) so I’m hoping you’re not suffering from a “writer’s block”. Recently I’ve been working on becoming better at Skype chats in French, and would like your opinion on a tool that I’ve developed. Could you e-mail me at duolinguist@zoho.com, so I could attach it to an e-mail for your ideas/opinions/feedback?

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